Dressing for the office in the morning takes time and energy, which is why the concept of a “work uniform”–wearing a variation of the same outfit every single day–has become so popular. Barack Obama, for instance, put on the same blue or gray suit every morning while he was in office to cut down on the number of unimportant decisions he needed to make. Then there’s Mark Zuckerberg, whose closet famously consists of dozens of the same gray T-shirt, allowing him to eliminate any sartorial choices so he can focus all his energies on Facebook.
But it’s not quite that simple for women. For starters, it’s not as easy for women to throw on a T-shirt and jeans for work every day. In many industries, women still struggle to be treated as equal to their male counterparts. Wearing polished, professional clothing even in the midst of a casual work environment is an important way to project competence. Case in point: Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer have never shown up to a board meeting in a hoodie and T-shirt. They’re known for elegant shift dresses and well-chosen separates.
Women are also faced with more options when it comes to workwear. Men generally have two choices: formal, in which case they wear a suit, or casual, in which case they wear jeans. (In fact, many men feel so limited by their workwear that they resort to using colorful socks as a way to express themselves.) Women, on the other hand, can pick from a wide spectrum of choices, ranging from masculine to feminine, modest to risqué, muted to colorful, the list goes on.
I’ve spent the last few weeks testing a range of work uniforms that can help women simplify their morning routine throughout the year. Each outfit on this list is designed to be appropriate for different industries and office cultures. They also span a range of price points. This can be used as a template to help you build a work uniform that is perfect for your particular situation.
Your First Work Uniform: Aritzia
Appropriate for: Building your first professional wardrobe
Style Inspiration: Emma Watson
Canadian brand Aritzia targets the 18 to 30 market. Its Babaton line is specifically designed to go between professional and casual settings, which is ideal for women just starting out in the workplace, looking to build their first work uniform. I would recommend getting a couple of blouses and pants, plus a dress, and going through them in a regular rotation. The beauty of these outfits is that they don’t look overly starchy or formal, so they can easily transition into evening or weekend activities, like a casual dinner or brunch with friends.
A great basic is the Cian ruffled-sleeve blouse ($78), which is made of breezy, fluid polyester fabric that is easy to machine wash and doesn’t stain easily. Aritzia is known for its wide array of trousers in interesting silhouettes. I tried the Dexter trousers ($145) which are baggy and comfortable, but also look polished because they are made from a Japanese crepe material that is matte on the outside, but silky against your skin. When the fall comes, you can add trench coat: I tried the Lawson ($245), but Aritzia offers a wide range.
The brand also has a wide range of dresses that are perfect for the summer. I found the Whitlaw wrap dress ($135) which is made out of crisp cotton poplin, totally work appropriate, but also great for picnics or parties.
Best For Tech Lady Bosses: Argent
Appropriate for: Tech companies from startups to giants
Style Inspiration: Angela Ahrendts
Let’s face it. You need a blazer year round because your office air conditioning is over-active in the summer. Argent, a year-old startup that creates modern, edgy workwear, has you covered. It has created a smart blazer, full of ingenious hidden features, that is meant to be worn throughout the year.
The Smart Cuff blazer ($330), which is one of Argent’s best-selling products, is a perfect foundational blazer in your work uniform. I wore it for two weeks in a particularly chilly coworking space this summer. It features a rib cuff that allows you to pull back your sleeves when you’re working. It also has an invisible layer of tape on the back of your neck that is reflective, so that if you’re biking or even walking at night, cars will see you. It has a mesh pocket on the inside for your phone, so you can open the blazer and take a peek without having to fully take out your device. It also has a special compartment for your office key card, so you can easily get into and out of your building just by tapping the side of your blazer.
Try pairing the blazer with Argent’s Hi-Tech ponte dress ($275), which is a work-appropriate little black dress. During the colder months, it looks great with contrast colored tights. It comes with pockets, which I found came in very handy when I was testing it out. It comes with UVB 30 protection and despite being black, tends to reduce the absorption of heat. And to top it all off, it comes in a very flattering profile: It cinches in at the waist, then flares out at the hem, and comes with three-way stretch. I wore the dress and the blazer repeatedly for two weeks and didn’t feel like I needed to change things up in any way.
Best For Starchier Industries: MM.Lafleur
Appropriate for: Law, consulting, government
Style Inspiration: Kamala Harris, Christine Lagarde
While the overall trend in offices has gone more casual, there are still industries where more formal dress is still required. If you’re heading into the courtroom, for instance, or to meet legislators on Capitol Hill, you’ll need a closet full of shift dresses.
MM.LaFleur, a women’s workwear startup, was designed specifically for busy women who spend their lives in professional clothing. The brand tries to take the effort out of the shopping process through its “bento box” concept, which allows you to provide a couple of details about your lifestyle and body type so that a personal stylist can pick out several outfits for you. You can send back the ones you don’t like. The brand now offers a much wider selection of sizes that go from 0 to 22.
For a simple work uniform, I would recommend an elegant blouse and trouser set, plus a shift dress. I tested the Foster Pant ($195), which ingeniously includes a concealed button at the hem that allows you to adjust their length. They serve as crops in the summer, and regular trousers in the winter. They look slim and proper, but they are made from a comfortable fabric that doesn’t stretch out, so you don’t end up with a terrible bulge at the knee half way through the day. I paired it with the Lin Top ($190), a crepe blouse that has a bow on it. It has a high, modest neckline, but the architectural drape makes it interesting.
For the shift, I tried the Sarah Dress ($195), which is very simple and versatile, but have interesting structured sleeves. It’s made from a polyester blend material that holds its shape throughout long days of wear, but also doesn’t feel too hot when you’re buzzing around in the summer and pairs nicely with a sweater or blazer in the colder months. One great thing about all of these garments is that they are machine washable, unlike much other workwear that often needs to be dry cleaned. I packed all of them for a work trip and they didn’t wrinkle or require ironing.
Best For Creative Professions: Eileen Fisher
Appropriate for: Architects, designers, creative directors
Style inspiration: Rei Kawakubo, Grace Coddington
Eileen Fisher has nailed the work uniform. The brand has created “The System” which is a set of eight garments that come in high-quality fabrics and simple silhouettes. Each piece, which comes in black or white, can be paired with any other part of the system, for an endless combination of looks.
I tried the System Silk Long Shell ($218) in black along with the System Washable Stretch Crepe Slim Pant ($168) also in black. Together, the pieces felt breezy and comfortable, but thanks to the drape of the silk, the outfit still felt polished. Part of the reason the pieces can be worn every day is that they are so basic. Since they don’t stand out, your clothes just fade into the background.
For some variety, I also tried the System Tank Dress ($198). This simple jersey dress worked well with heels or flats, but was also incredibly versatile. I could wear it to interviews or to a PTA meeting. The sheer simplicity of these clothes means you can wear them anywhere.
Investment Pieces: Senza Tempo
Appropriate for: Killer pieces for when you’re going for an interview, giving a talk, presenting findings to the board.
Style Inspiration: Amal Clooney
If you’re more established in your career, you might be looking for couple of luxurious but versatile pieces for your wardrobe that will make you feel confident when you need to bring your A-game. A Ted talk, for instance, or an important VC pitch.
The startup Senza Tempo was founded specifically to fill this need. The brand has launched a very curated collection of classic pieces. The clothes are pricey, catering to the luxury market and they are all made with the highest-quality fabrics. Each piece is lined in silk, for instance, because of its temperature regulating qualities.
The Frances black sleeveless top ($450) that pairs with the Sophia pencil skirt ($450) are a good place to start. Together, the pieces look like a tailored dress and serves an an alternative to a suit. The outfit is extremely simple but very elegant. But they can also be worn as separates; the black top even looks good with jeans, for more casual events. The garments are made from virgin Italian wool that is stretchy, so it hugs the body. I wore this outfit on a warm day and it didn’t feel hot at all, since the silk layer underneath wicks away sweat.
Best In Class: Les Lunes
Appropriate for: Almost anything. A casual office, a board meeting, chasing after your child in the playground after work.
Style Inspiration: Oprah Winfrey
San Francisco and Paris-based startup Les Lunes launched with one objective: to create the most comfortable workwear imaginable. Several years ago, the brand’s founders discovered bamboo, a soft, stretchy eco-friendly material that is now commonly used in sleepwear and underwear. They put this material in the hands of a team of Parisian designers to see if they could transform it into clothing that could be worn to work.
They’ve succeeded. They’ve created a line of jumpsuits, dresses, and separates that look polished thanks to thoughtful touches, like ruching, draping, and lace. The fabric is temperature regulating, making it appropriate throughout the year. If you were to put together one work uniform that you would wear every day, for the entire year, I would suggest going with Les Lunes.
One of my favorite pieces was the sleeveless Casino Jumpsuit ($220) that comes with a belt. The piece seriously felt like a pair of pajamas, but never looked slouchy or informal. It comes with a belt that provides a nice waistline. The Mont-Louis Dress ($245) is a wrap dress that has lace detailing at the neckline and hem. Again, it is extremely comfortable, but always looks very put together. Both are great foundational pieces for your wardrobe and can be worn on rotation.
To add a bit of variety to these pieces, I paired them with the Fontainebleau Jacket ($232), which is also entirely made of bamboo. It drapes nicely over trousers and dresses, and comes with a long belt that you tie at your waist. Pairing the jacket with the outfits totally changes the look, adding some variety on cooler days when you need an extra layer.